Let them eat Les Big Macs

SUN JOURNAL

McDonald's: The French have grown fond of the ubiquitous American fast food.

March 29, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARIS -- Just a hop down the road, the Decler sisters could have been dining on a couple of tender frog legs or a mixed seafood grill with scallops, or an order of steak tartare so tender that the knife provided with it never comes into play.

But the Declers were having none of it.

They were dining on Les Big Macs and frites, Big Macs and fries -- french fries -- and loving every bite.

"I can love good food and I can also love McDonald's," says Vanesse Decler, 21, in a mini-review that the fast-food chain would have to accept as decidedly mixed. "I like the meat and the sauce and even the bun."

Call the French snooty, or just demanding, for their attention to good food, good wine, good atmosphere in their restaurants, for lingering over their meals. But the French have a dirty little secret: Of all the people in Europe, they like McDonald's more than anyone else does.

Pound for quarter-pound, they eat more of it, more often, than any other nationality on the continent, and the nay-sayers here who predicted the French would give up their beloved aged cheese before adopting the quick-fry meat patties so often seen as emblematic of America's bad taste, have been proven as wrong as red wine with white fish.

The French have taken McDonald's, a classic symbol of Americana, and made it very much their own, with menu variations that range from bite-size clumps of regional cheeses to fondue.

Despite the ability to order just about McAnything here, though, the old McDonald's classics are what keep people like the Declers filling the franchises, which can be found in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, among the street artists surrounding the Louvre and within a whiff of the restaurants at Les Halles, where the Declars were taking a shopping break.

"I love these," says the other half of the Decler sisters, 18-year-old Christelle, closing her eyes and placing a fry on her tongue. "Yes, there is other food around, but this is different, like food you want to eat as a break."

These are not the greatest of days for France, whose top politicians have been mired in scandal; whose considerable Muslim population is divided, like much of the non-Muslim population, about a ban on headscarves; whose economy can optimistically be said to be limping along; and whose wine industry has been hiccuping because of a decrease of consumption among the Frenchmen combined with a willingness to -- oh, dear -- drink imports.

And now, its great gastronomy industry is suffering a few burps. The French are visiting restaurants less often, and if that were not insulting enough, the most recent chef to become a household name in the country is named Jamie Oliver, the son of a pub owner from the working-class lanes of Essex -- in Britain, of all places.

"People will always enjoy good food no matter where it comes from, and they are discovering it can come from many places," says Remi Krug, of Krug Champagne fame, who has been appointed chairman of the French government's new Institute for Higher Studies in Taste, Gastronomy and Table Arts. "It does not always have to come from France to be good."

But from McDonald's?

No clowning around.

France has 1,008 McDonald's restaurants, second in Europe only to the 1,235 in Britain and the 1,244 in Germany, and though each country's total sales are a closely held company secret, France is leading them both.

Anna Rozenich, a corporate spokeswoman for McDonald's in Illinois, says the company's success in France -- McDonald's restaurants are operated with great autonomy from country to country -- is setting trends at franchises around the world, including in the United States.

"McDonald's may have been born in the United States, but in France, it's very much French," Rozenich says, though it must be said that nothing screams America more loudly than the golden arches. "We certainly coordinate and align our plans, but they're responsible for creating the Frenchness of their restaurants."

And that Frenchness doesn't come cheap.

A Big Mac in the heart of Paris goes for $3.65, a fish sandwich sells for $3.40, large fries for $2.40 and the Royal Cheese -- which would be called a quarter pounder, except for the metric system -- goes for $3.85.

"It's a bit expensive for fast food but in the house you have French food and in the restaurants you have French food," explains Eliass L'Caid, 20, chomping on the second of his two lunch-time chicken sandwiches, a newspaper spread before him, looking very much at home. "Here, you have American food, and it's good to get something that tastes completely different."

The French are famous for their habit of sitting in cafes and restaurants long enough that paying rent for their tables should not be out of the question. So, in France, great attention is paid to atmosphere in McDonald's restaurants. In the French Alps there are chalet themes, including wood-beamed ceilings, armchairs and fireplaces. In the cities, the designs tend to be more urban, with music kiosks and sports paraphernalia dominating.

"We are finished shopping," Vanesse Declar concludes, explaining her stop in McDonald's, where she and her sister seemed to be talking more than eating, "but we aren't ready to go home."

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